SINGAPORE: Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Sunday underlined the need to address Singaporeans' anxieties over foreign work pass holders as there has been a rising concern among them about job losses to migrant professionals.
Singaporeans understand that the country needs to welcome the talent and expertise that Singapore's economy needs, Lee said in his televised address to Singaporeans ahead of Singapore's 56 National Day on Monday.
"We must address Singaporeans' anxieties over foreign work pass holders.
"Work pass holders help expand our economy and create more opportunities for us. When we complement our own workforce with skills from around the world, more companies will invest here, and this then creates more jobs for Singaporeans. This is a virtuous cycle," the prime minister said.
However, when the number of work pass holders is large, people naturally become worried about competition for jobs, Lee noted.
The uncertainties of COVID-19 have worsened these anxieties.
Work pass holders reinforce the team, but may also compete directly with their local colleagues.
Sometimes the locals feel unfairly treated, for instance when they miss out on being hired or promoted, he said.
"Outside work, from time to time there are also social frictions, because some work pass holders and their families have not fully adapted to our social norms, nor fully integrated into our society," the prime minister noted.
Lee said he understands these anxieties and problems, and the government is addressing them.
"We have to adjust our policies to manage the quality, numbers and concentrations of foreigners in Singapore. If we do this well, we can continue to welcome foreign workers and new immigrants, as we must.
"Turning inwards is against our fundamental interests. It would damage Singapore's standing as a global and regional hub. It would cost us jobs and opportunities. Most importantly, it goes against our values of openness, and of being accepting of others who are different from us. We uphold these values, because they have anchored us, and helped us progress over the years as a nation," he said.
Lee also highlighted the need to manage issues of race and religion carefully.
"We pride ourselves on being a uniquely harmonious, multiracial society. But maintaining social harmony takes unremitting work. "Our social norms evolve with each successive generation, shaped by different life experiences and aspirations. These norms are also influenced by external trends, because we are so open and connected to the rest of the world. Therefore, with every new generation, our racial harmony needs to be refreshed, reaffirmed and reinforced," he said.
Recently, several racist incidents have gained wide publicity, amplified by the social media.
Such incidents are worrying, but they are not the norm, Lee noted.
"Many more happy inter-racial interactions happen every day, but these seldom go viral.
"The negative incidents do not mean that our approach is failing. However, they illustrate how issues of race and religion will always be highly emotive, and can easily divide us. Therefore, such issues will always need close attention," said the prime minister.
It is helpful to air and acknowledge these sensitive issues, he said.
"It took several generations of sustained effort to bring our races and religions together, and grow the common space that we now share. This harmony did not result from every group stridently insisting on its identity and rights; it was the fruit of mutual understanding and compromise by all parties the majority as well as the minorities.
"We must not lightly give up this hard-won and delicate balance. As our society evolves, we have to continually adjust this balance to maintain our social harmony. It is the government's duty to manage these issues on behalf of all Singaporeans, regardless of race, language or religion. To do this, we will need your cooperation, support and trust," said Lee.
When Singapore became self-governing in 1959, different racial groups lived separately, attended different schools in different languages, and worked in different types of jobs and businesses, he said, adding that the nation building has come a long way since, but the journey continues.
"As this year's National Day Parade (NDP) theme song goes, "We did it before, and we'll do it again!" I am confident that Singapore can keep on building a more harmonious society, a more prosperous economy and a more successful nation for generations to come," he assured Singaporeans.
Lee also highlighted that the battle against COVID-19 has seen many ups and downs.
Globally, it has taken millions of lives, sickened hundreds of millions of people and disrupted countless jobs and businesses.
"In Singapore, each time we think we are getting it under control, it has surprised us. Today, we are vaccinating 1 per cent of our population daily. More than two thirds of our residents are fully vaccinated. Among our elderly, more than 85 per cent have received at least one dose.
"A higher proportion of our population is now better protected. We are in a more resilient position. We can now look forward to a careful, step-by-step re-opening of our economy. This is how we can move into the new normal," he said.
Meanwhile, the fight against COVID-19 has taken a toll on all of Singaporeans, Lee added.